Unique volunteer roles at Florida animal shelter

Volunteer reaching down to pet a brown dog in a kennel
Pasco County Animal Services in Florida welcomes volunteers to help with everything from driving animal control officers to making TikTok videos.
By Liz Finch

When you think of volunteering at an animal shelter, you’re probably expecting to walk dogs, play with kittens or help with the ever-present mountain of dirty laundry. But there’s so much more, and shelters really, really need you right now.

“Every shelter in the country is understaffed and overwhelmed,” says Kimberly Elman, manager of the national mentorship program at Best Friends Animal Society. “We are in a crisis and the only way to get through it is for as many people as possible to roll up their sleeves and figure out what they can do to help.” And because people working in animal shelters understand that not everyone wants to (or can) walk a dog, many are getting away from the days when volunteers could only help with a limited list of tasks.

Kimberly, who consults with Best Friends Network Partners on ways to expand upon their volunteer opportunities, says, “More and more shelters are coming up with creative ways to match people’s skills and interests in a way that fulfills organizational needs and keeps volunteers coming back.”

Setting a good example

One such organization is Pasco County Animal Services (PCAS) in Florida, where Kimberly started consulting in July of 2019 when the shelter was re-examining its volunteer program. Back then, there were only about 70 people signed up to volunteer, fewer than half of whom were active in any given month.

Today, PCAS has built out 21 volunteer job descriptions, including several that support animal control, a department that doesn’t typically use volunteers. At last count, there were 328 volunteers and an average of 124 of them work at the shelter every month.

[Two volunteers, helping animals in countless ways]

To someone like Kimberly, who sees the inner workings of volunteer programs around the country, these are the marks of a well-planned, well-executed volunteer program with actively engaged leadership, staff and volunteers.

“PCAS never hesitates to pilot new skills-based opportunities that serve to fill staffing and resource gaps, and many of those ideas come from volunteers who created the idea and asked if it was possible,” she says. “If you want to volunteer at your local shelter but aren’t finding many options to do so, you should encourage your community’s organizations to follow their example.”

Reaching beyond typical volunteer roles

According to PCAS volunteer and foster care coordinator Sarah Sukhram, the volunteer program succeeds through a combination of creativity and flexibility. “We want to match up skills, desires and needs of all parties as much as we can,” she says. “That has led to volunteers doing everything from assisting in the vet clinic, to creating TikTok posts, to working as greeters in the lobby.”

Sometimes, making the best match involves adjusting roles to accommodate changing circumstances. For example, a retired volunteer couple recently had to make some adjustments to the jobs they originally were doing at PCAS.

“The wife’s health issues made it difficult for her to continue walking dogs in the Florida heat, while the husband’s role as a clerical aide was put on temporary hiatus,” Sarah says. “Now they transport animals for surgeries or to rescue partners all over the county, which means we don’t have to send a staff member out to do that. They love it and are often heard singing to the animals to help calm them during the drive.”

Calling Officer Uber

One of the most popular roles with both volunteers and the staff is Officer Uber. People in this role essentially chauffeur animal protection officers to their calls for service.

“After (officers complete) a call, they typically have to park their vehicles somewhere and type the case notes into the database before going on to the next call,” says PCAS Assistant Director Spencer Conover. “That’s not very efficient, but if a volunteer can drive them around, officers have time to put in their notes and get prepared for the next call.”

[4 volunteers helping animal in unique ways]

Officer Ubers also have a big impact on job satisfaction, and the officers often compete to have these specialized volunteers on board their vehicles.

“Officers deal with traffic, animals in distress and angry or emotional people all day,” Spencer says. “Having someone to debrief with as events are happening makes a huge difference. Being able to turn to someone else in the car and say, ‘Man, that situation was crazy, huh?’ burns off some of that tension immediately.”

Making the perfect match

Shelter staff members feel good when they see volunteers matched to jobs that fit them well. “The biggest win for me comes when a volunteer who is seemingly fine with a particular job is shifted into a role that better suits their personality, their desires and their skills,” says Spencer. “When that happens, we see an entirely different person and those volunteers truly become a part of the team, a part of the mission, and we wouldn’t have the success we have without them.”

[Meet a matchmaking volunteer]

Every little bit helps in the animal welfare world right now.

“Never underestimate the impact you are making,” says Sarah. “People think that their efforts would be too small, or their contribution not significant, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth.

“If you can only volunteer once a week, then volunteer once a week,” she adds. “Whatever you can do doesn’t go unnoticed. Every extra helping hand and heart is valuable.”

Work your magic on animals in need

Whether you’ve got a special skill you want to try out or just want to snuggle some animals, volunteering will help them all.

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